It sounds like something out of a made-in-Chicago Dick Wolf crime show.
The head of a Chicago film studio owed money to a bookie linked to a reputed mob figure.
Facing his own legal troubles, the studio boss worked undercover for prosecutors, helping bring down one of the city’s most powerful union bosses.
All of this after he had a string of unpaid loans from a tiny bank authorities later shut down for fraud after the bank’s president turned up dead under strange circumstances.
But this isn’t some TV show. It’s the real-life story of Alexander S. Pissios, whose Cinespace Chicago Film Studios on the West Side hosts filming and production for Wolf’s popular NBC-TV dramas including “Chicago P.D.”
A week ago, a private equity firm announced it’s buying the two Cinespace studios — the one in Chicago and the original in Toronto — from Pissios and his family, a deal said to be worth at least $1 billion.
News of the sale put a spotlight on Pissios. In addition to the legal troubles that pushed him to be a federal mole and help build the case against longtime Chicago Teamsters boss John T. Coli Sr. and the studio boss’s unpaid loans from shuttered Washington Federal Bank for Savings, Pissios turns out to have ties to a third big federal criminal case in Chicago.
According to the transcript from a recent court hearing, Pissios owed money to Vincent DelGiudice, who pleaded guilty last February to running an illegal gambling ring with ties to a mob-connected bookie.
Neither Pissios nor prosecutors will comment. And the court transcript offers no details.
Pissios began working as a mole when prosecutors told him they could charge him with bankruptcy fraud. The U.S. attorney’s office gave Pissios a great deal, too, handing him an unusual non-prosecution agreement in March 2017 that spares him any federal criminal charges as long as he helps them and is truthful.
He secretly recorded then-Teamsters boss Coli, who had shaken down Cinespace for $325,000, according to court records. Coli pleaded guilty and is cooperating with authorities, who’ve delayed his sentencing.
The bank case involves Washington Federal, a small Bridgeport institution federal regulators shut down in December 2017 — days after bank president John F. Gembara was found dead with a rope around his neck in the Park Ridge bedroom of a customer.
Though the police and the Cook County medical examiner’s office ruled Gembara’s death a suicide, some of Gembara’s family and friends think he was killed over problems at the bank.
Before running Cinespace, Pissios developed real estate with Edward Gobbo, a former Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation truck driver. They built homes near the United Center with millions in loans from Washington Federal and other banks.
Both filed for bankruptcy protection — Pissios in 2011, Gobbo the following year — while in debt to Gembara’s bank. It’s unclear whether the loans were repaid.
Though Gobbo owed Washington Federal $12 million when he filed for bankruptcy, the bank kept lending money to him and his family.
Gobbo, who hasn’t been charged with any crime, is a nephew of the late William Hanhardt, a former Chicago police chief of detectives who went to prison for running a mob-tied jewelry ring.
Federal authorities believe Washington Federal lent millions to people as part of a vast embezzlement scheme.
Among the recipients: Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson, a nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley. Thompson awaits trial for income-tax fraud for deducting interest payments on his Washington Federal loans even though he hadn’t made the payments.
Thompson has refiled his tax returns, paying what he owed the IRS and saying he didn’t know his accountants deducted the interest payments on the tax returns the alderman and his wife signed for at least five years.
When Pissios and his wife filed for bankruptcy in 2011, they were more than $1 million in debt. Five years after the case was closed, prosecutors discovered they hadn’t disclosed a $100,000 loan from Pissios’ now-deceased uncle Nick Mirkopoulos, Cinespace’s founder.
Threatened with prison, Pissios agreed to cooperate with authorities investigating corruption and come clean about any potentially illicit activities he’d been involved in. He acknowledged owing a $70,000 gambling debt to Bridgeport trucking executive William Pacella, saying he’d been sending $1,500 checks to Pacella’s business for four years —without ever reducing the principal he owed.
Pacella hasn’t been charged with any crime.
Thomas Breen, Pissios’s lawyer, has said that debt has been repaid.
Pissios told investigators he’d been placing illegal gambling wagers since the mid-1990s, when he was selling fur coats on Michigan Avenue.
In early 2020, a federal grand jury indicted DelGiudice and nine associates, including Mettawa Mayor Casey Urlacher, former Bear Brian Urlacher’s brother. Casey Urlacher got a pardon from President Donald Trump last January. Two weeks later, DelGiudice pleaded guilty. He’s awaiting sentencing as his lawyer fights prosecutors’ efforts to seize $9 million from him, including his Orland Park home.
The movie studio mogul’s connections to DelGiudice became public during a recent court hearing, when DelGiudice’s attorney Carolyn Gurland questioned a retired FBI agent over how much DelGiudice made from his gambling ring.
“And do you recall that [DelGiudice associate] Keith Benson testified that Mr. DelGiudice forgave a lot of gambling debt to an individual called Alex [Pissios],” Gurland asked retired agent John Iannarelli in court last month.
“I do,” Iannarelli said.
There was no other testimony regarding Pissios during the hearing. Gurland won’t discuss Pissios, what he owed DelGiudice or why some of it was forgiven.
The DelGiudice ring involved as many as 1,000 gamblers placing bets through a Costa Rican website. Court records show DelGiudice had some gamblers cover losses by paying his personal expenses, including his daughters’ college tuition.
Prosecutors linked DelGiudice to another convicted bookie, Greg Paloian, whose ties to organized crime date at least to the 1990s. Paloian’s gamblers also placed wagers on DelGiudice’s website, prosecutors say. Paloian pleaded guilty in a separate case earlier this year.
DelGiudice also has ties to Cinespace’s longtime lobbyist Frank Cortese, who operates FJC Technologies, a side business that provides 65 video gaming machines to bars and restaurants under a license he got in 2016 from the Illinois Gaming Board. Cortese initially ran that company out of Cinespace studios. Now, it’s run from his La Grange home.
Cortese faces possible revocation of his gambling license after regulators discovered he has “business and/or social relationships” with DelGiudice, according to a gaming board complaint filed Aug. 24 that says: “DelGiudice and his associates were present at a licensed video gaming establishment in Bedford Park, Illinois, when Cortese and FJC delivered and installed” gambling machines in February 2019.
Cortese wouldn’t have been granted a license if state regulators knew of his connections to DelGiudice, the complaint says.
Cortese and his lawyers didn’t return messages.
Pissios has told federal investigators he hired Cortese as a lobbyist at Coli’s urging — Cortese also lobbied for the Teamsters union — and that Cortese helped the studio get $27.7 million in state grants from then-Gov. Pat Quinn to turn an old Ryerson Steel site into Cinespace.
The final grant, $10 million, came a month after Quinn lost re-election to Bruce Rauner. The new governor ordered Cinespace to return the money amid questions over how it would be spent.